The Excavation

Joseph Roth

translated by Michael Hofmann

The summer lay there, waiting to finish. Autumn was when the strangers were expected, the hop merchants from Austria, Germany and England, the rich men off whom many people in our town made their livings.

The summer lay there, and it spawned various illnesses. People got belly-aches and died from eating rotten fruit, the water ran out in the wells, a couple of pine forests burned down, and the dry grass on the steppes caught alight. At night, the horizon was red, and there were acrid fumes in the air.

We kept getting new visitors to the morgue. The authorities announced that the water was dangerous. We drank hot tea, and avoided cherries, even sour cherries. The apples and pears were not yet ripe.

A lot of people went to the steam baths, to sweat out the poisons. Frau Bardach, the owner of the baths, was kept so busy that she fell ill. Another two weeks, then she was dead, and she was buried in the Jewish cemetery before her son could get there, her son out in the wide world who wrote to her a couple of times a year.

His uncle, Frau Bardach’s brother, was a rich timber merchant in Vienna. Wolf, his nephew, had crossed the border to join him when still a boy.

It was said he had become a great lawyer, a celebrated man. Everyone was eager to see him.

He came. He really was worth seeing. Could that gentleman really be a son of our town?

Wolf Bardach was not merely wide and fat, with glinting spectacles in the middle of his face, with a stiff grey hat perched on his head, with shiny red cheeks – Bardach also wore light check trousers. They were the first such trousers that had ever been seen in our town, not even the Count had such a pair.

Bardach inherited a large fortune. Steam baths are a good business. If Bardach had stayed to run his mother’s business, he would have made millions within a few years.

He had no shortage of advisers either. People who had known Wolf Bardach when he was a little boy came to him with propositions. Wolf Bardach was staying in a hotel, oh, what a hotel!

Because of course we had a hotel, it stood at the end of the street that led to the station. A simple little house, with a bar in the middle, and a ridiculous sign over the door. It showed a fat knight, holding a beer tankard aloft in his right hand, while his armour vainly strove to restrain his bulging gut.

The hotel had no more than three rooms. Each of the rooms was heated by a bad stove. None of the rooms had a bed with a mattress in it. All the beds had straw sacks.

There will have been vermin as well. It was known as The Cockroach Arms. In fact, the hotel was called The Drunken Bear. That was where the great lawyer Wolf Bardach stayed, the famous man, the man in light check trousers.

He took all three rooms for himself. There was nowhere left for any other visitors. Even rich people who came to our town were forced to stay with our two bakers, who let out their beds at night, while they did their baking.

It was probably the pitiful condition of the tourist facilities in our town that persuaded the attorney to build a new hotel.

He decided to build a hotel along American lines. He wanted a hotel such as you might have found in New York City.

Wolf Bardach sold the steam baths and his mother’s house. He bought five little houses, and had them torn down.

It wasn’t just the houses themselves that cost money. The demolition cost as well. Because on average three families lived in each of the five houses, and because each family had lots of children, Herr Bardach had to build tenements to rehouse all these homeless people.

So there was work in our town. The oldest men, men with white beards, men you would have called on at most to fix your stove in winter, now clambered up and down scaffolding poles. They were like bearded weasels.

I too found work. I had a notebook, and wrote down metres and centimetres and kept a tally of planks, posts and bricks.

I wasn’t the only one either. There were other intelligent young men with notebooks with me.

We were indispensable.

The hotel was to be five storeys high. It was the tallest building anywhere within ten miles.

White, tall, lonely, it stuck out over the world. Our old people, who didn’t think much of progress, were angry. They thought the hotel was a Tower of Babel.

But it kept growing.

One day, the engineer who was in charge of the building climbed up on the scaffolding, fell off, and was dead.

He was buried between the Christian and Jewish cemeteries because no one could remember his faith.

His death provoked a huge kerfuffle. But Bardach, a progressive chap, was undeterred, and he sent for a new engineer, and he went on building.

Four months later, with the snow already in deep piles on the streets, he was forced to call a halt.

But when the first swallows arrived, so did Herr Bardach. We went on building.

On a hot July day, the work was finally finished. But the money was finished too.

Creditors came. Invoices came. Only no travellers came, and all two hundred rooms were empty.

To save his bacon, he set up a café on the ground floor, a café featuring classical music. But no customers came.

The music played to empty tables. One or two wealthy officers went in, played a game of billiards, and went out again.

Instead of sitting in the café and enjoying life, the inhabitants of our town stood outside the windows, which were protected by thick green curtains.

The inhabitants of our town would drink their coffee at home, then walk up to the windows and listen to the music, without having to pay anything.

That thrifty style of course did nothing for our hotel owner. One day he quietly packed his bags and left.

At least, we had earned some money. We had a new hotel. When visitors came, they stayed there, and they sat in the café, and listened to the music.

But in summer, spring and winter, the great building remained empty. A porter stood in front of the door like a stone statue, perfectly immobile. He aged visibly, his gold buttons grew dull, his black tailcoat acquired a greenish patina.

Nothing more was heard of the fearless builder. The steam baths sent gay plumes of smoke into the sky every day. Unlike the hotel and the café, they were always busy.

*

Our town was poor. Our people had no regular income, they were sustained by miracles. There were many people who had no occupation at all. They borrowed money. But who let them have the loans? Even the moneylenders didn’t have any money. People lived off lucky breaks.

Things kept happening that gave us new hopes. The building of the hotel had led only to disappointment. A winter followed, with hard early frosts, it fell on us like a murderer, by the end of November it was already 25 below. The birds dropped out of the trees, we could pick them up every morning. The snow groaned underfoot, the frost cut into our flesh with a thousand tiny lashes, our stoves were filled to bursting, the wind pushed the smoke back down the chimneys, so that we almost asphyxiated in our rooms. We couldn’t open the windows, because we had already wedged them shut with cotton wool and newspapers. The windowpanes acquired thick crusts of opaque crystal, the strange flora of winter.

The poor were fed by our Count. Those who couldn’t beg, starved and died. People were forever running through the streets with corpses: the black-clad coachmen whipped their black steeds to a gallop, and the mourners ran after the departed, it was as though there was a race between the quick and the dead, to see who would reach the overflowing graveyards first. No room! No room! – screamed the crows. Those ravenous birds hung heavy and black in the bare boughs. They were like winged fruits, they beat their wings at each other and squabbled noisily, they flew around the houses and pecked like sparrows at the frozen windows, they were at hand like bad news, they were remote like gloomy premonitions, they were black and menacing on the black boughs and the white snow.

How suddenly the evenings used to fall there, evenings that came with a keen wind, with remote glittering stars in a frozen blue sky, with short vehement darkening indoors, with howling devils in the stoves, with ghosts spun from nothing. The sun was visible for half an hour a day. It was pale and white, obscured by a frozen windowpane. Long heavy icicles hung off the low roofs, like tassels with rigor mortis. Narrow paths were trodden into deep snow, people walked between tall white walls of snow. The only cheerful thing was the jingling of the sleigh bells, a ringing almost like spring. The frost imparted a short, harsh, glassy echo to the sound, from a distance it was like the buzzing of alert young flies.

The pine forests were black slashes on a white field. Fog blanketed the distant hills, streams lay gurgling behind thick windows, and round the wells were circles of thick, honed, dangerous glass.

In that winter, which made our poor still poorer, we awaited, with more than usual impatience, the arrival from faraway Peking of the wealthy Herr Britz, the tea merchant whose trademark (a set of scales held by an angel) is known the world over as a guarantee of genuine China tea.

When Herr Britz arrived, things looked up for everyone. He spent two weeks in our midst, he visited the grave of his father, he visited his dead relatives and his living relatives, those he didn’t know as well, he was invited by the rich, and he invited the poor.

He came every winter, in the middle of winter, when the frost had reached its sharpest intensity, he came like an envoy of God. Everyone blessed him, wherever he came and went.

I don’t know how people learned of his coming. At any rate, one day everyone knew. The train only stopped in our station on Wednesdays. And every Wednesday people thought: he’ll be coming a week today! A fortnight today!

The train got in at twenty-five past five in the evening. That was late evening in this part of the world; by rights the windows should have been shuttered, and people back in their homes. But not a bit of it. All the shutters were still open, the lights were on in all the houses; the windows looked illuminated, the lamps had all been cleaned, and gave out all the light they possessed. Sleighs, crowded with people, slid along the straight road to the station, dropped their dark cargo, curved elegantly to a stop, blue smoke came out of the horses’ nostrils, their hooves cracked on the ice, impatiently they whinnied, the coachmen rubbed their hands and smacked their shoulders, people stood at the bar and warmed up with schnapps and stamped their feet just like the horses.

Then out came the porter, there was ice on his fair moustache, he announced the train, doors opened, there was a ringing on the platform, the train drew in, steam came hissing from the locomotive. And among the passengers who got off was Herr Britz.

The fine and stately figure he cut! The beaver and sealskin coat! The beautiful silk scarf thrown round his neck!

He wasn’t tired, there wasn’t a wrinkle on his clean-shaven face, his skin was rosy and brown, his dark eyes clear and kind, his large, slender hands slipped easily out of their heavy fur mittens, and reached out to greet everyone.

All the coachmen fought over him, all of them wanted to take him. If only he had brought his entire wardrobe with him, then he could have divided it among all the sleighs! It wasn’t even as though he had a lot of luggage, just a single suitcase! He couldn’t break himself up into pieces, he couldn’t stand in ten sleighs with just two feet. He sat down in one of them, the first in line, and all the others set off after him, with bells chiming! When he got out of his sleigh, he had to pay all the coachmen. But that didn’t matter! He had money!

We had a new hotel now, Herr Britz was delighted with the luxury. ‘We had it built for you,’ lied the Mayor at the reception the town put on in Herr Britz’s honour that evening. Maybe Herr Britz believed him.

He took five rooms on the first floor, he received the poor, he doled out money, every day he chartered a different sleigh, he took the edge off winter, he distributed wood and coal, bread and herrings, tea and lard, he bought Madeira for the sick, and in short he warmed the world like a hundred summers.

When he went away, he left a lot of happy people behind, but he didn’t look as fresh as he had when he arrived: he was tired and stooped, his skin was pale, his kind eyes shone less brightly. That’s what a strain charity can be.

*

That year, Herr Britz left us so much money that we could finally equip an expedition to the underground passages that had gripped our imagination for many years, and to which we looked for a solution to our perennial shortage of funds.

The underground passages, so they said, had been dug in the 17th century, and led from the church, which was right in the middle of town, past the cellars of many old houses, as far as the Count’s castle, and contained quantities of gold and silver which had been hidden in days of war from whatever enemies we were facing at the time.

Underground, then, we had a lot of gold, it was only on the surface that we were poor. Our excavations could make us all wealthy. Then we wouldn’t have to work any more. Every inhabitant of our town would have so much money that he wouldn’t have to worry for the rest of his life, and his children would have a future.

But we were short of money to reach the treasure. We needed equipment, gas masks, various kinds of instrument, lamps. Above all we needed courageous men prepared to risk their lives. They would have to be well paid. The rich benefactors of our town (the Count, for instance) had always been sceptical about this undertaking. They didn’t believe in the buried treasure, they didn’t even believe in the historical existence of our old passages.

But now, at last, we had the money.

When the spring arrived, we walked around the streets all day long, discussing subterranean matters. What a sensation, every step you take to believe there are gold and jewels underfoot! Every man who climbed down into his cellar in those days to fetch ladders, wine, vinegar or whatever else, could not fail to be awestruck. Everyone fancied doing some digging for themselves. Some did it on quiet nights, others tapped their walls, looking for hollow spots. It was already being said that so and so had unearthed treasures in his cellar. Everyone grew suspicious. There came a time when everyone began to complain how badly they were doing, so as not to be suspected of having discovered treasure. Of course, the more people complained, the more suspicious they made themselves. It was a time when people stopped giving to beggars, because they believed they were the ones who had struck gold and silver, and were just begging as a front. The shops were empty, because everyone was afraid that making a purchase would incur suspicion of a windfall. When people noticed that their complaints were met with suspicion and unbelief, they stopped speaking altogether. It was all they could do to exchange casual greetings. When two were seen talking together, people pointed at them and called them millionaires.

One day a history professor arrived, with assistants, lamps and gas masks. Placards were put up on houses, saying the town council was looking for courageous workmen.

Pantaleimon came forward, taking me with him. We were experienced diggers, and well used to subterranean things from the graveyard. We were experts in matters subterranean.

We demanded to be paid in advance, because we were afraid we might meet our death tunnelling, and die for nothing. We buried our wages next to the fourth grave in the oldest row, wrote our wills and put them in our pockets. Pantaleimon left his wages not to his own family, but to the Count. I had a long think about who I should bequeath my money to. I had the money I had saved for my great trip abroad. I left it to my brother in Mexico.

*

We got up at five in the morning, it was 10 May, the birds were twittering for all they were worth. There were ten of us, with shovels and mattocks. We were issued with rubber boots, descended into Herr Jampoller’s cellar, broke down a nailed-up door, and found ourselves at the beginning of our subterranean journey.

Oh, the stink, I’ll never forget it! It stank of old potatoes and rotten hay, of mushrooms and mould, and a little bit of autumn forests in the rain. We lit the tunnel and the walls with the scientific lamps. We found skeletons, chests, the professor wrote it all down, the stone walls were dripping, they were covered with whitish slime, we encountered stone coffins, inscriptions, but we found no gold, no silver, no jewels.

We worked all day. When we returned to the surface, it was evening, and we were near the castle.

We had earned our money, and we dug it up and put it with our savings.

The town calmed down, people lost their suspiciousness, there was life in the streets again, and the beggars fared better once more.